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Not Quite the Last of the Carolina Parakeet

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Carolina Parakeet, Mark Catesby

Sometimes it’s best not to tell people what you’ve seen.

Birders know how hard it can be to keep quiet when you’ve discovered something really exciting, but there are times when the stakes are genuinely high, as they were along Florida’s Sebastian River in the late winter and spring of 1889.

Frank Chapman

On a field trip to Brevard County that year, one of my ornitho-heroes, Frank Michler Chapman,

found the only known roosting place of the Carolina paroquet … at the head of the Sebastian River in Florida … in a hollow tree. After he had gone, the place was found by another man, who, placing a gunny sack over the opening, captured all of them, and even cut down the tree, which he sold…. That was the last of the Carolina paroquet.

When Chapman told this story to the New York Times some 35 years later (and half a decade after the death of the last captive in the Cincinnati Zoo, exactly one hundred years ago today), he neglected, conveniently, to mention the part he himself had played in the destruction of the Sebastian River flock. In 1890, freshly returned from Florida, Chapman had reported to the Linnaean Society of New York:

Late one morning (March 15 [1889]) we found a flock of eight birds…. These birds took flight as we approached, but twice returned while we waited below, leaving five of their number with us. We secured in all, during our stay of one week, fifteen specimens.

As Noel Snyder rightly points out, the parakeet’s population in 1889 was likely still “substantial,” and neither Chapman’s collecting nor an anonymous Florida rube’s destructive enterprise doomed the species.

Still, it remains difficult to reconcile the New York ornithologist’s repeated expressions of concern for the bird with his repeated collecting of specimens — as late as 1904, when Chapman, after finding only a dozen individuals in Okeechobee County, described the species in print as “apparently very rare,” he still shot four specimens, fully a third of all the parakeets he encountered.

As Snyder’s interviews and research discovered, the Carolina parakeet would survive as a species for another fifteen or twenty or thirty or even forty years, but Chapman’s elegiac tone in Bird-Lore and the Times makes his happy trigger finger even harder to understand — and with more than a century’s sad hindsight, perhaps a little hard to forgive.

Photo by Pelican Island Audubon; specimen in the collections of Cornell University.

 

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

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